What are some ways I can market cool-season specialty crops?
Answer: For any market garden, it is important to consider which market is right for you and your farm. In order to assess the types of markets it is important to ask yourself these questions:
Is my farm location conducive to direct marketing? Are you near lucrative farmers markets, restaurants, and specialty food stores? If not, you might need to consider wholesale marketing.
Do I enjoy interacting with people? If so, farmers markets might be perfect. If not, something that does not require as much personal interaction might be a better fit. Many of the crops described here are unique and could provide a great draw to a farmers market stand throughout the season. If you are using these season-extension techniques on your farm, chances are that your harvest season extends past the season of operation for a typical farmers market or other seasonal direct market. Following are some options for marketing specialty vegetables and fruits beyond the typical farmers market.
Winter Farmers Markets
The farmers market season is extending in many locations across the U.S., with year-round markets, special winter or holiday markets, or simply a longer season that runs through December. It is important to decide to produce for these markets by late summer/early fall. The crops that you would like to market in late fall need to be planted in the field or hoop house in late July or early August in order to achieve optimum yields in the limited light and cold days of winter. If you currently sell at a farmers market, ask the market coordinator to consider extending the market into the winter months. See the ATTRA publication Tips for Selling at Farmers Markets to learn more about advantages, considerations, and tips.
Many restaurants are interested in local foods and will pay a premium. They can be a lucrative market, especially if you are located in an area with several high-end restaurants. In order to receive a price premium for your product, there are a few general guidelines. Make a personal visit to the chef, and bring a sample of one of your products—something that sets you apart. Make sure that your product is clean, you are clean, and that you visit when they are not busy—at an off-time during restaurant hours. It is generally good to avoid the hours during lunch and dinner and it is always a good idea to call the executive chef first.
Chefs appreciate knowing what is available every week. They also appreciate knowing what is in season. Faxing or emailing a weekly availability list that includes prices will remind chefs that you have product available to sell. When you deliver, put on clean clothes and make sure your delivery boxes are clean and presentable.
Gourmet and Specialty Food Markets
Gourmet and specialty food markets will appreciate local specialty vegetables and fruits. It is important with some of the fruits, especially the wild fruit varieties, to know the shelf life of these products and have an understanding of the post-harvest handling techniques required to keep them fresh.
These types of markets may have food-safety requirements that are more stringent than farmers markets, such as a GAPs (Good Agricultural Practices) plan. They also may have standardized packing requirements that are foreign to many small growers. When approaching a specialty store, contact the produce buyer and ask what type of products the market is interested in and what the packing and food safety standards are. For more information on GAPs, see the ATTRA publication An Illustrated Guide to Implementing Food Safety Practices on the Farm.
You can find more detailed information in the ATTRA publication Specialty Crops for Cold Climates. It discusses how climatic factors affect your crops, alternative crops to consider, marketing, season-extension techniques, and much more.